The Interview

Jan 3, 2019 - 3:04 PM

Jessica Pye returns with her corporate-world perspective on the horse world. This is the third installment in her series on how to run a horse business like a business; read her previous installments on The Job Ad (Not From Hell) and The Job Description.

Ah, the dreaded interview. This is something that is traditionally very different from corporate America to the horse world, even though it is the most common type of employment assessment in both worlds. The majority of the research I conducted during my graduate studies revolved around employment assessments and the interview, so this is one of my favorite topics.

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Is a candidate going to be a good fit with your team and your program? The interview is your chance to find out. Photos Courtesy Of Jessica Pye

I’ll start with some background information. Interviews are generally one of the least valid and reliable assessments available. They can be separated into two categories: structured and unstructured (horse jobs).

Structured interviews are conducted within a certain set of guidelines related to the number, type and even the exact wording of questions asked. An unstructured interview simply implies that the individual conducting the interview bases their questions and technique on what is happening in the moment with every candidate, whether or not one interview varies drastically from the next. Interviews are most reliable and valid if they are structured (and completed by a panel of people rather than an individual) but the level of structure required is not always obtainable.

I could bore you with all the statistics, but the truth is: Interviews, both structured and unstructured, are the worst way to evaluate potential employees. Employers, sometimes without realizing it, develop insane and irrational biases that have absolutely nothing to do with whether or not that individual will be good at their job. Weak handshake? No job for you. Too blonde, weird voice, bad boots, you look like my lying ex… NOPE. Seriously, this stuff has been proven.

It has even been proven that interviewers tend to emote feelings such as enthusiasm and excitement while assessing potential new hires, which can alter the environment and candidate reactions. These employers then tend to base their hiring decisions and predict the future job performance of the candidate based off of their own personal emotional reactions. Then, surprise, two weeks into the job when your employer has been treating you like crap, the job is not as advertised and resembles slave labor, and you’re not quite as perky as you were when you interviewed, you get fired.

Why? Well, science just told us why. But, according to your employer, you now have a bad attitude; you appear to not want to be there, or you even get accused of not being the same person you were in the interview. I’ve talked with several former working students, grooms, barn managers and riders and every single one of them mentioned that kind of criticism in their employer’s firing rant.

Horse professionals, as professionals, need to remind themselves that their employees are only their employees. Not their best friends. Not their personal cheering squad. Not their on-call therapist or personal entertainment/comedian. If you need a shrink, a best friend or a more entertaining life go get those things and stop blaming your staff.

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Traditional question-and-answer style interviews are subject to the biases of the interviewer, who might be looking for a friend or a cheering squad rather than an employee.

Good news: The interview is one area where the horse industry actually does it better than everyone else. Although equine employers are still subject to all of these same biases listed above (and a couple more thought-provoking ones specific to this industry) they have one secret weapon: the work sample test!

Actually, it’s kind of a cross between a work sample test and a situational test.  But these types of tests take place during the vast majority of equestrian job interviews. The candidate shows up, works in the job for a day or two (or way too many), and the employer gets to witness the potential candidate essentially doing the job.

Work sample tasks, like tacking up a horse, have some of the highest rates of validity and reliability of all the employment assessments. However, some tasks in a horsey job fall more under the situational test category, like cleaning a stall (everyone does it differently) or even riding a horse (everyone does it way differently), and are judged more subjectively and therefore are less useful in the evaluation of a candidate. That doesn’t mean you don’t use those activities as part of the interview. Of course you do. The employee will have to do them for you. BUT… it’s really important as the person doing the hiring to understand the differences between the two types of tasks and to not project your own biases on a candidate’s performance. After all, it’s cleaning a stall or putting in studs or riding a horse. It’s literally not rocket science.

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One area where the horse world gets it right: having job candidates actually perform some of the duties required of the position as part of their interview.

Interview Tips For The Employer:

1. DO a brief phone interview first. You need to make sure this individual can string a sentence or two together, that your personalities jive and that the candidate does, in fact, know the difference between a hoof and hock. You’ve already checked out this person’s resume and sent the job description, which they approved. Talking to them on the phone assures they know the basics and that you can stand the sound of their voice.

2. DO NOT falsely advertise your job from the get go. (Believe it or not this totally happens). If you did your job description (last blog) that would be a hard mistake to make at this point.

3. DO pay for the potential employee’s trip. If you are interested in that individual (and you should know by now), pay their way to get to you whether that be their fuel or their plane ticket. If you don’t want to do that, you’re probably not that interested.

4. DO NOT make your interview longer than one day. Again, I must insist on a zero-slave-labor policy.

5. DO make that one day of a working interview as close to a normal working day as possible. If you bring this candidate in, let them ride your two best horses, take a long lunch and then spend the afternoon by the pool, you are not only depriving yourself of a good way of evaluating this person, you are advertising your job falsely. Lose/lose. If your daily routine is to load up four horses (and all their gear) and drive them to three different facilities for dressage lessons, cross-country schooling and show jump rounds at HITS in a 12-hour period… do that during the interview! Do. Exactly. That.

6. DO test the candidate’s skills that are highly important to you. If there is a specific skill or set of skills that you will require, be sure to test the individual on those skills. You need someone to braid three horses quickly? Make them braid a horse. You need them to do studs in under five minutes? Ask them to put studs in. Whatever it is that you know you will need, make sure you test those skills. And, if you stick to your normal daily routine, you’ll likely test the skills you need without even trying.

7. DO show the candidate where they will live. (The real place, not to be changed upon arrival.)

8. DO NOT tell the candidate they will be working with one or two other people and then surprise them with a solo gig upon arrival.

9. DO compensate this individual for their day of work. YES, your employees do make some money! In the corporate world all training is paid. If they have to get the job to be compensated, that is OK if you’ve paid for the travel expenses of those you do not hire and they only worked one day (suggested above). I don’t like, it but I can live with it. But absolutely NO slave labor from the start. Is it sad that I have to keep saying that?

10. DO NOT hire someone, change your mind after two weeks, and then fire them claiming it was a “trial.” No. Just no. I don’t care if you live in an at-will state or not. That’s just shady.

11. DO remember the motto of the business world today (especially with the millennial generation): WIIFMor “what’s in it for me?” You are being interviewed here as well, and the WIIFM is the most important part of any interaction you will have with your employees. And there is nothing wrong with employees being concerned with what they will gain working for you. (No, experience alone is not good enough. Neither is getting to handle your fantastic animals or getting to work with horses in general… that’s my personal favorite. <insert eye roll>) Their job should be clearly outlined and hopefully you will get what you need. But DO NOT forget to promote and reinforce what is in it for the employee (pay, health insurance, travel, riding time, PTO, etc.). The more creative you can get with what you can give your employees, the more valuable your job becomes and the more successful you will become at attracting and keeping the good ones.

These recommendations are not only to protect your employee but also to protect you as the employer. You want a qualified and content employee who is going to stick around. And, every time an employee leaves (for any or all of the “do not’s” listed above or your failure to implement the “do’s”) the horse world hears about it, and before too long, finding employees is downright impossible no matter how much you pay.


Jessica Pye is an advanced-level event rider who grew up in the hunter/jumper and equitation rings of Wellington, Florida, but fell in love with the versatility and challenge of eventing at age 12. She’s worked for and ridden with numerous top hunter/jumper, dressage and eventing instructors during her journey including Karen and David O’Connor, Capt. Mark Phillips, Mike Huber, Missy and Jessica Ransehousen, Debbie Divecchia and Emilee Spinelli. She also obtained her master’s degree in industrial/organizational psychology and worked as the director of admissions/utilization review/assessment for the largest behavioral health facility in New Mexico. She has just returned to running a professional horse business, Pye Equestrian, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

You can read all of Jessica’s blogs here.

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